A Millionaire of Yesterday by E. Phillips Oppenheim
The howls became a roar, blind passion was changed into purposeful fury. Who were these white men to march so boldly into the presence of the King without even the formality of sending an envoy ahead? For the King of Bekwando, drunk or sober, was a stickler for etiquette. It pleased him to keep white men waiting. For days sometimes a visitor was kept waiting his pleasure, not altogether certain either as to his ultimate fate, for there were ugly stories as to those who had journeyed to Bekwando and never been seen or heard of since. Those were the sort of visitors with whom his ebon Majesty loved to dally until they became pale with fright or furious with anger and impatience; but men like this white captain, who had brought him no presents, who came in overwhelming force and demanded a passage through his country as a matter of right were his special detestation. On his arrival he had simply marched into the place at the head of his columns of Hausas without ceremony, almost as a master, into the very presence of the King. Now he had come again with one of those other miscreants who at least had knelt before him and brought rum and many other presents. A slow, burning, sullen wrath was kindled in the King's heart as the three men drew near. His people, half-mad with excitement and debauch, needed only a cry from him to have closed like magic round these insolent intruders. His thick lips were parted, his breath came hot and fierce whilst he hesitated. But away outside the clearing was that little army of Hausas, clean-limbed, faithful, well drilled and armed. He choked down his wrath. There were grim stories about those who had yielded to the luxury of slaying these white men - stories of villages razed to the ground and destroyed, of a King himself who had been shot, of vengeance very swift and very merciless. He closed his mouth with a snap and sat up with drunken dignity. Oom Sam, in fear and trembling, moved to his side.
"What they want?" the King asked.
Oom Sam spread out the document which Trent had handed him upon a tree-stump, and explained. His Majesty nodded more affably. The document reminded him of the pleasant fact that there were three casks of rum to come to him every year. Besides, he rather liked scratching his royal mark upon the smooth, white paper. He was quite willing to repeat the performance, and took up the pen which Sam handed him readily.
"Him white man just come," Oom Sam explained; "want see you do this."
His Majesty was flattered, and, with the air of one to whom the signing of treaties and concessions is an everyday affair, affixed a thick, black cross upon the spot indicated.
"That all right?" he asked Oom Sam.
Oom Sam bowed to the ground.
"Him want to know," he said, jerking his head towards Captain Francis, "whether you know what means?"
His forefinger wandered aimlessly down the document. His Majesty's reply was prompt and cheerful.
"Three barrels of rum a year."
Sam explained further. "There will be white men come digging," he said; "white men with engines that blow, making holes under the ground and cutting trees."
The King was interested. "Where?" he asked.
Oom Sam pointed westward through the bush.
"Down by creek-side."
The King was thoughtful "Rum come all right?" he asked.
Oom Sam pointed to the papers.
"Say so there," he declared. "All quite plain."
The King grinned. It was not regal, but he certainly did it. If white men come too near they must be shot - carefully and from ambush. He leaned back with the air of desiring the conference to cease. Oom Sam turned to Captain Francis.
"King him quite satisfied," he declared. "Him all explained before - he agree."
The King suddenly woke up again. He clutched Sam by the arm, and whispered in his ear. This time it was Sam who grinned.
"King, him say him signed paper twice," he explained. "Him want four barrels of rum now."
Trent laughed harshly.
"He shall swim in it, Sam," he said; "he shall float down to hell upon it."
Oom Sam explained to the King that, owing to the sentiments of affection and admiration with which the white men regarded him, the three barrels should be made into four, whereupon his Majesty bluntly pronounced the audience at an end and waddled off into his Imperial abode.
The two Englishmen walked slowly back to the hut. Between them there had sprung up from the first moment a strong and mutual antipathy. The blunt savagery of Trent, his apparently heartless treatment of his weaker partner, and his avowed unscrupulousness, offended the newcomer much in the same manner as in many ways he himself was obnoxious to Trent. His immaculate fatigue-uniform, his calm superciliousness, his obvious air of belonging to a superior class, were galling to Trent beyond measure. He himself felt the difference - he realised his ignorance, his unkempt and uncared-for appearance. Perhaps, as the two men walked side by side, some faint foreshadowing of the future showed to Trent another and a larger world where they two would once more walk side by side, the outward differences between them lessened, the smouldering irritation of the present leaping up into the red-hot flame of hatred. Perhaps it was just as well for John Francis that the man who walked so sullenly by his side had not the eyes of a seer, for it was a wild country and Trent himself had drunk deep of its lawlessness. A little accident with a knife, a carelessly handled revolver, and the man who was destined to stand more than once in his way would pass out of his life for ever. But in those days Trent knew nothing of what was to come - which was just as well for John Francis.
* * * * *
Monty was sitting up when they reached the hut, but at the sight of Trent's companion he cowered back and affected sleepiness. This time, however, Francis was not to be denied. He walked to Monty's side, and stood looking down upon him.
"I think," he said gently, "that we have met before."
"A mistake," Monty declared. "Never saw you in my life. Just off to sleep."
But Francis had seen the trembling of the man's lips, and his nervously shaking hands.
"There is nothing to fear," he said; "I wanted to speak to you as a friend."
"Don't know you; don't want to speak to you," Monty declared.
Francis stooped down and whispered a name in the ear of the sullen man. Trent leaned forward, but he could not hear it - only he too saw the shudder and caught the little cry which broke from the white lips of his partner.
Monty sat up, white, despairing, with strained, set face and bloodshot eyes.
"Look here," he said, "I may be what you say, and I may not. It's no business of yours. Do you hear? Now be off and leave me alone! Such as I am, I am. I won't be interfered with. But - " Monty's voice became a shriek.
"Leave me alone!" he cried. "I have no name I tell you, no past, no future. Let me alone, or by Heaven I'll shoot you!"
Francis shrugged his shoulders, and turned away with a sigh.
"A word with you outside," he said to Trent - and Trent followed him out into the night. The moon was paling - in the east there was a faint shimmer of dawn. A breeze was rustling in the trees. The two men stood face to face.
"Look here, sir," Francis said, "I notice that this concession of yours is granted to you and your partner jointly whilst alive and to the survivor, in case of the death of either of you."
"What then?" Trent asked fiercely.
"This! It's a beastly unfair arrangement, but I suppose it's too late to upset it. Your partner is half sodden with drink now. You know what that means in this climate. You've the wit to keep sober enough yourself. You're a strong man, and he is weak. You must take care of him. You can if you will."
"Anything else?" Trent asked roughly.
The officer looked his man up and down.
"We're in a pretty rough country," he said, "and a man gets into the habit of having his own way here. But listen to me! If anything happens to your partner here or in Buckomari, you'll have me to reckon with. I shall not forget. We are bound to meet! Remember that!"
Trent turned his back upon him in a fit of passion which choked down all speech. Captain Francis lit a cigarette and walked across towards his camp.